Rock column, Mail on Sunday, June 22 2008
Manchester Opera House
The live-music event of 2007 was the Led Zeppelin reunion: three old rockers, pushing 60, getting back together for one night. The event of 2008 is a septuagenarian songwriter returning to the road after a 15-year break. At 73, Leonard Cohen is probably only touring because a former manager swindled him out of $5m. Thank heavens for crooked managers.
Cohen is a genius, and yet only a cult figure. His albums don’t even go gold in this country, but anyone who likes him adores him, and at his first British show, expertly presented by the Manchester International Festival, he gets a huge ovation just for strolling on stage in an ancient pinstripe suit.
He repays the acclaim by delivering just about the most perfect two hours you could spend at a concert. The show opens not with one or two classic songs, but with 11: from the beguiling romance of Dance Me To The End Of Love to the gleeful dystopia of The Future, from the Eighties ironies of Everybody Knows to the Sixties innocence of Suzanne, from the biblical grandeur of Anthem to the biting self-mockery of Tower Of Song.
On his last album, Dear Heather (2004), Cohen’s pen still sparkled but his voice had almost gone. Something must have happened since – has he given up smoking, or taken up yoga? – because his battered baritone doesn’t sound a day over 65.
His diction is immaculate, and every 30 seconds he delivers a gem of a line: ‘like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free’; ‘I call to you, I call to you, but I don’t call soft enough’; ‘I was born like this, I had no choice – I was born with the gift of a golden voice’. This last one gets a cheer all its own.
To say he throws himself into the task would be exaggerating: if he did, he would surely break. But he repeatedly crouches, almost kneeling, willing himself into each song. He uses his frail frame as a signpost, to deflect the audience’s eyes towards a soloist, and wears a fedora that is instantly emblematic, like Van Morrison’s pork-pie. Godard said that in the movies, all you need is a gun and a girl. Cohen suggests that in concert, all you need is a hat and a gag.
It helps to have a band and a set too, and both are highly sympathetic. The musical director, Roscoe Beck, has to marry the two halves of Cohen’s oeuvre, making the jaunty synth-pop work alongside the earnest folk. He recasts both, replacing most of the synths with the churchy warmth of the Hammond organ, and letting the acoustic instruments float above the keyboards. The result is the Platonic ideal of the band you might have found in a three-star hotel on a Greek island in 1977.
The set design is taken lock, stock and ruched curtain from the 2006 feature film Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, in which he briefly sang – with U2 as his backing band – against a rich theatrical red. The reverence in which Cohen is held by fellow artists is now feeding into his own performance.
Hallelujah brings the very best out of him, as he digs deep and makes the poetry his own again after more than 100 cover versions. It’s great to see the song getting its due, but he has several others just as strong. Democracy fizzes and crackles and nails America, warts and all; I'm Your Man, always a good song, grows into a great one as Cohen’s phrasing adds an undertone of sadness.
In the third hour, the magic escapes. The band intros go from generous to repetitive, and a couple of dud tracks creep in, while better songs, like Alexandra Leaving, are left out. But the evening is still a triumph. Cohen’s Indian summer has been compared to Johnny Cash's final blaze of minimal glory, but that all happened in the studio. This is the show Cash never got round to giving, the show the older Dylan has never managed. Get to Glastonbury if you can, to see a giant of popular song take his place in the pantheon.